The original melting pot

Playwright Israel Zangwill, who coined the term melting pot in his eponymous play, emphasized in an ‘Afterword’ that the term was never meant to be taken as a “surrender to the dominant type”, but rather as “a process of American amalgamation”. Ross’s notion of the melting pot as a strategy—albeit a failed one, in his view—to maintain British-American hegemony was punctured long before he formulated it.

As a lettered man Zangwill may well have purposefully evoked literary sources with his term and his explanation. It is reminiscent, for instance, of Hector St. John de Crèvecœur’s ‘Letter III. What is an American?’, in which he wrote that one “becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men”.1 Or, much closer to his own time, he may have alluded to Henry James’s phrase “the cauldron of the ‘American character’”, in his essay ‘New York and the Hudson: a spring impression’.2

In reality, though, it was a matter of neither surrender nor amalgamation, whether in the wilderness or in the metropolis. On one hand, what historian John Higham called immigrants’ “localized attachments”  (e.g. the old-country neighborhoods or villages) that were copied in their new surroundings slowly gave way to wider identities of nationality or language community. While on the other there were immigrants who quickly shed their ethnic or geographic identities and moved—often literally—into the “American scene”.3

Nico de Klerk

Israel Zangwill. Afterword, II. in: The melting pot. New York: American Jewish Book Company; 1921 [1909]),

Topic: Race
Case: American journeys


1 Hector St. John de Crèvecœur. Letter III. What is an American? In: Letters from an American farmer. New York: Fox, Duffield & Company; 1904 [1782]; 55,

2 Henry James. New York and the Hudson: a spring impression. In: The American scene. London: Chapman & Hall; 1907 [1905]; 121,

3 John Higham. Integrating America. In: Hanging together. New Haven – London: Yale University Press; 2001; 85-100 [orig. publ. in 1981].

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